Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Town Council race, 1979

About Joe

My photo
Chapel Hill, N.C., United States
Joe Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris & Marjorie Herzenberg. His father owned the town pharmacy in Franklin, N.J., where Joe grew up. After he graduated from Yale University in 1964, Joe went to Mississippi to register voters for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969 to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, soon immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the Council to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the Council, becoming the former Confederacy's first openly gay elected official. Joe died surrounded by friends on October 28, 2007. He was 66 years old.

Sunday, April 14, 2002

A Gay Person In Public Life - essay by Joe Herzenberg

Essay for Out and Elected in the USA photo exhibit, written 2001


It was a simple matter. I had always been interested in politics. Both my father and his father had served on the Borough Council and the Board of Education in my hometown of Franklin, New Jersey, where I was born.

After five years at Yale, where I studied history, and another five years at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where I taught and helped make history and witnessed great social change, I arrived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a southern university town with a tradition of liberalism and tolerance. That was in 1969, when the voters had just elected the first Black mayor in a White-majority southern town.

While still in the closet, I ran for the Chapel Hill Town Council for the first time in 1979. I lost, but then served two years on the Council after being appointed to fill a vacancy. It wasn’t until 1987, after I came out, that I was elected to a full term on the Council. I served for six years, and one of those years, 1992, I was also Mayor Pro Tempore.

Chapel Hill has about 45,000 residents, half of them University of North Carolina students. And our local elections are non-partisan. (There are not enough Republicans to make much difference.) Gay students and activists, and sometimes the North Carolina press tried to make a big deal about my election as the first openly gay official on "the Southern Mainland" – there was already one of us in Key West. But most of my constituents didn’t seem to mind one way or the other, so long as I was doing a good job tending to the public business.

I enjoyed my service on the Town Council, where I helped accomplish a good deal including a shelter for the homeless, a new public library, a downtown parking garage and plaza, important additions to our greenway system, an AIDS house, and new legislation in several areas including tree protections and noise abatement. And I always was, and still am, a gay person in public life in our town.

Joe in 2000, as featured in Out and Elected in the U.S.A. photo exhibit

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